worship

What Concern is that to You and Me?
Dr. Baron Mullis
January 17, 2016 - Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2:1-11

 

PDF_web   icon_listen_web


What Concern is that to You and Me?                                                               
Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2:1-11        

Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
January 17, 2016

 

Some years back, I managed to get on a e-mail list for a company that specialized in bundled travel deals.  Every week, like clockwork, I would receive the e-mail equivalent of a glossy brochure advertising an all-inclusive holiday excursion.  Sort of like a Louise Penny character, I would sit at my desk in Indiana in the winter and salivate over the sunny beaches and drinks with umbrellas in them and tropical fruit sticking out of them.  Fast-forward ahead a few years to when I was living in Charlotte, and an old friend from Indiana, Sherri, who was then living in Philadelphia in a cold winter, called me one day and said, “I’ve found an all-inclusive resort in Costa Rica where we can shake off the winter blues and the best part is, it’s only three hundred dollars, including airfare from Philly.”

Now, immediately, my skeptic mind kicked in.  Three hundred dollars seemed absurdly cheap, and I had just heard about another friend who also went on an all-inclusive, cheap vacation only to learn that she was first, flying standby, and second, that there was a six hour bus-ride from the airport to the resort… in a rickety-bus…with no air-conditioning… that broke down.   Now, I have had all of those experiences, but I generally prefer not to associate them with vacations.  So I replied, “Sherri, I’m not interested in a three hundred dollar vacation where I might or might not arrive at the destination at a time yet to be determined.   I’m willing to spend a hundred dollars more to guarantee our arrival.

Mind you, even many years ago, with that budget, you could get about as far as Valdosta.  So we scoured the web and found a vacation for a little more than six hundred dollars where I could find the resort on an actual map and it wasn’t more than five miles from the airport.  We invited significant others and friends, bought our tickets, and waited eagerly to thaw out a few weeks later in Antigua. 

With a setup like that, you have to know that the flight was delayed.  We waited and waited in the airport, each minute chipping away at our vacation.  Finally we flew out, leaving just late enough that we arrived at the resort after the gate was locked.  The cab driver took his fare and left us on the curb with our luggage. Some time later when security let us in, we made our way the main desk to be told, “We have no reservation for you.” 

“That’s impossible, we replied, it was a bundled vacation package and we’ve already flown here.  Check again.”

They called the travel agent.

Tensions were rising.

Finally they booked us in, splitting us up into two far-distant parts of the resort.

Tensions continued to mount. 

Several of us decided the next day to take a sail around the island, because that’s always a good idea when tensions are high, isn’t it?  Get on a boat together so you can’t get away from each other.

Finally, we anchored in a cove and got off the boat and went to swim and snorkel and walk the beach.  Eventually I walked back over to Sherri, who had born the worst brunt of another friend’s irritation, and she was sitting in the shallow water with a mesh bag filled with seashells. 

“Look what I found,” she said, holding up a stunning seashell.

“That’s amazing,” I countered, “They are never in that good of condition – it’s not occupied is it?”

“No,” she replied, “I found one for you, too,” handing me a seashell.  She added, “I found one for each of us, actually.”

As the others returned from their walks or swims, she handed them each one of the beautiful seashells she had found.  Moods lifted.  Tensions eased.  The act of generosity pushed the “reset” button on our trip.

I think it was sort of an accidental miracle.

We all know miracles, we know the earth-shatteringly important miracles we encounter – a plane lands on the Hudson River, and everyone survives… a disease that seemed to be fatal goes suddenly into remission – we know the big ones.

This isn’t a theological term at all, though, but I think there are such things as well that are nothing more than miraculous accidents.  I think of them as accidental miracles.

You’ve probably encountered a few accidental miracles yourself.  They are the occurrences when there is not one single bit of purpose to their happening other than to introduce beauty and generosity into life.  Nobody is alive that wouldn’t otherwise be, nobody has been healed of any particular ailment, they are just the “life is beautiful moments.”

I’ve always sort of thought of the wedding feast in Cana that way. 

Nobody’s life was going to be over, nobody was suffering – we know they’d already had plenty of wine, according to story.  Maybe a few too many guests showed up without returning their RSVP cards even though you included a stamped envelope for them to use.

Next thing you know, the wine gives out. 

Nobody’s dying, there’s not a plane crash, it’s just the wine running out. 

It’s not a tragedy.

The wine is not necessary. 

Jesus didn’t want to do it.

Rilke puts it this way:

“But at that wedding-feast, there when

unexpectedly the wine ran out, -

she begged him for a gesture with her look

and didn’t grasp that he resisted her.

And then he did it.  Later she understood

how she had pressured him into his course:

for now he really was a wonder-worker,

and the whole sacrifice was now ordained.1

Everything is so structured in John’s Gospel narrative.  There is exactly one chapter of prologue, one chapter of epilogue, and the middle is broken down into equal parts signs and wonders, and the glorification of Jesus. 

It’s incredibly structured.  Where the synoptic Gospels leave some mystery as to when and how Jesus understood himself as God’s anointed, the Gospel of John seems to presuppose it from the very start.  Indeed, even the Last Supper is structured differently in John than it is in any other Gospel – where Jesus shares the Passover lamb with his disciples in the others, in John, Jesus is the Passover lamb.  John’s Gospel from the high Christology of its prologue to its fascination with symbols such as light and darkness is stylized, theologized and planned. 

And here is this seemingly random, unplanned miracle at the very start – a sort of accidental miracle, if you will.  Nobody’s being saved from death, no planes are crashing, It’s just beauty and generosity.  It’s just grace. 

Indeed it is grace and generosity with abandon. 

Just for the satisfaction of my curiosity, I decided this time to calculate the amount of wine.  Six jars times thirty gallons – that’s 180 gallons of wine. 

A normal sized wine bottle is 750 ML.

That’s 900 bottles of wine, six hundred if you go with the conservative estimate.

That’s just showing off. 

That’s abundance.

That’s grace.

Richard Wilbur concludes, “The world’s fullness is not made, but found.”2

So, what concern is that to you and me?

The concern is that God, who is the fount of every blessing, God whose giving knows no ending, God is the source of all life, all grace, all truth, all beauty and it is given in endless abundance. 

Many years ago, I was singing with the Princeton Seminary choir and our director, Martin Tel, informed us that we were going to sing the final verse of Amazing Grace in canon.

To my mind it was a horrible idea.  That’s the verse where the rhetoric soars, you know, ten thousand years and all, the organ gets loud(er) and more to the point: Amazing Grace is not a round.  But Martin insisted, “It’s pentatonic, and that means every note can be played with every other note.  It works, just trust me.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t trust him, it’s that I wanted to sing the song the way I wanted to sing the song.

But then we started singing, and it was a four-part canon and we were singing it twice, so I began hearing the words repeating, the canon started to roll along,

When we’ve been there ten thousand years, ten thousand years, ten thousand years, ten thousand years… we’ve no less days, we’ve no less days, we’ve no less days, we’ve no less days…

Abundance.  Unnecessary grace. 

And when the canon began to conclude, he had us hold the final note, and finally the last thread of the canon came into a single, sustained note and he faded us out, one by one, until only a single alto was singing, and then he started us singing the verse again, this time one, by one, until finally it was a cacophony grace, thousands, days, years, going on and on and on. 

You can’t exhaust God’s grace.

It’s like finding nine hundred bottles of wine when the party is already in full swing.

It’s like finding that ten thousand years isn’t long enough to experience the fullness of God.

It’s like winning the lottery when you haven’t bought a ticket. 

I’m pretty sure that John didn’t put this story right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry for no reason.  It seems to serve absolutely no purpose other than to be a marker of generosity and beauty – and to make that statement before one more word about Jesus could be said.

What concern is that to you and to me?

We are both the recipients and bearers of that grace. 

We are the recipients in a world that is so full of grace that we cannot exhaust it.

We are the bearers of that grace in a world that is bereft of grace because it does not understand that it is not made but found. 

There is an old fable that is told of a teacher in a missionary school in Africa.  After getting to know her class she shared that she would miss being with her family on Christmas day.  The children were interested in the practices of Christmas so she spoke of worship and church and then added, almost as an afterthought that giving presents was part of the celebration.

“Why,” the children wanted to know?

She thought for a moment and replied, “The gift is an expression of love and gratitude for our friends and our family, and we give them to each other to remind us of what God gave us in Jesus.”

When Christmas day arrived, a child in the class brought the teacher a seashell of spectacular beauty.  “Where did you ever find it,” his teacher asked.

The boy told her of a cove where this particular kind of shell could be found.  She thanked him for it. 

Later, she looked on her map of the surrounding area and was startled to note that the cove where pupil found the shell was many miles away by foot.  The next day, she said to him, “That shell is beautiful, but you shouldn’t have gone all that way simply to get a gift for me.”

The story goes that the young man looked at her with kind eyes and said, “The walk is part of the gift.”

And so it is with grace. 

And so it is with God. 

What concern is that to you and me?

The pointless abundance of beauty and kindness that are available to us all are part of the gift. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.


1 Rainer Maria Rilke, On the Marriage at Cana in Divine Inspirations: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, Atwan, Dardess and Rosenthal, eds.  (NY: Oxford University Press, 1998) p107
2 Ibid. p110

Last Published: January 21, 2016 1:16 PM